As this is being written, grim news fills our media. Terrorist attacks. Police shootings. Ambushes of police officers. Civil wars and attempted coups. They remind us that while the text the Lectionary appoints for this Sunday may be nearly 3,000 years old, both its context and the sins it describes are nearly as contemporary as today’s news.
After all, when Isaiah prophesies, observers worry about a rising power in the east. In fact, not long after he writes this, Assyria will destroy Israel and, not much later, nearly destroy Judah.
Yet Judah thrives in Isaiah’s day. Its elite bask in their wealth. Even its religious institutions seem to flourish. Jerusalem’s temple overflows with worshipers scurrying around with their sacrifices, offerings and incense.
It’s a situation reminiscent of 21st century North America’s. While eastern nations like India and China seem to pose growing economic threats, much of North America seems to be thriving. Wealth among North America’s richest citizens is near unprecedented levels.
What’s more, no country claims to have a higher percentage active worshipers than the United States. So on the surface, things look good; America’s economic and religious institutions seem to flourish like few others in world history.
Yet Isaiah may unnerve the 21st century’s citizens with his report that just beneath Israel’s sturdy surface things were rotting. After all, while the Israelites were, like we are, busy doing “religious things,” the prophet compares them, in verse 10, to Sodom and Gomorrah. Nothing the Judeans are doing in the temple, he insists, pleases the Lord. In fact, Isaiah announces, all of it is disgusting and, in fact, disturbing to the God to whom it’s supposedly offered.
This message, however, isn’t as shocking as Isaiah’s next. “When you spread your hands out in prayer,” God warns in verse 15 through him, “I will hide my eyes from you; even if you offer many prayers, I will not listen.” All this is because, Isaiah insists, the blood of innocent people soaks the hands Israel stretches out to God in prayer.
The Israelites who, in other words, pray to God show that they don’t love the Lord or their neighbors nearly as much as they love themselves. God warns that God will no longer listen to the prayers of people who have bloodied their hands in that way.
Arguably, few warnings are more sobering to God’s people who cherish God’s faithfulness in hearing and answering prayers. If we can’t rely on God to hear and answer our prayers, what hope is there for ourselves, those we love and, in fact, God’s whole creation?
Old Testament scholar James Limburg says Isaiah’s warning shows the Judeans have “arranged their lives into two compartments.” One they’ve labeled “religion.” It includes their participation in religious ceremonies and rituals. The other box the Israelites have labeled something like “life.” In includes their daily lives.
Those two boxes, Isaiah complains, have nothing to do with each other. The Israelites’ religion has no impact on the way they live. They don’t, for instance, do justice and defend widows and orphans, as God expects them to do.
Worship services are among the modern church’s most cherished activities. We bustle around offering prayers, songs, messages and money, assuming it must surely make God happy. Yet Isaiah suggests that to the extent that the hands we’ve folded in prayer are somehow stained with vulnerable peoples’ blood, it angers God.
To the extent that the voices we’ve lifted in song have hurt others, our worship angers God. The prophet implies that to the extent that we’ve gained the money we’ve offered God in immoral ways, it angers God. To the extent that pastors have failed to practice what we’ve preached, we’ve angered God.
You can stretch that nationally. After all, some hands raised in prayer have also bound Africans in chains and chased Native Americans off their lands. Some voices raised in song have spoken about adherents of other religions as if they were demons. Some money American Christians have offered God has been gained through fraud and other devious means. Some of our preachers who have preached have also abused our nation’s children.
This is ominous, because, as Will Willimon, reflecting on our text’s message, says, “Bad deeds can silence the most eloquent of religious words. The test for what we do here from eleven until noon is what we do out there Monday through Saturday.” So how will the Lord ever accept our own flawed worship? What hope do you and I have that God will ever answer our prayers?
Something, answers the prophet, must transform our sinfully “scarlet” worship into something as lovely as new snow. Something must change our morally “crimson” actions into offerings that are as pure as newly spun wool.
Christians sometimes act as if our religion is little more than another self-help plan. We sometimes act as though all we need to do to be better people is just try harder. To use the prophet’s imagery, we almost act as if we can scrub clean our ourselves and our actions, including our worship.
The Bible, however, insists that only blood, ironically, that most staining element, can do that. When the Israelites worshiped in the temple, God called them to sprinkle the altar, their priests and even the temple veil with sacrificed animals’ blood. This blood, after all, symbolized God’s washing away of sins and sanctifying of God’s people and even temple. In fact, Hebrews 9:22’s author goes so far as to insist, “Without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness.”
However, the book of Hebrews reminds us that animal blood could only go so far in scouring crimson sins and scarlet sinners. It could only clean people from our sins “outwardly,” according to Hebrews 9:13.
Thankfully, then, God has done everything necessary to scrub God’s adopted sons and daughters clean. God sent God’s only Son to live and die among us. In his life-long suffering, but especially on the cross, Jesus Christ offered the complete and completed sacrifice for our forgiveness.
In fact, only Christ’s blood makes our scarlet selves clean and crimson selves forgiven. His blood graciously scrubs the bloodstained hands of those who have received God’s grace with our faith clean. As a result, God treats us as though we were as morally spotless as new snow and wool. However, through that blood, God also empowers us to be what Isaiah called “willing and obedient.” The Holy Spirit enables you and me to live in ways that show that we’re both forgiven and thankful for God’s grace.
While a man about whom I recently read wasn’t highly formally educated, he stayed up late nights educating himself in the law. So during the Great Depression a bank hired him to dispose of the many farms on which the bank was foreclosing.
This man, however, was deeply concerned about the farmers who were little more than slaves. They lived on someone else’s land and paid often-exorbitant rent. Each year many of them simply sank deeper and deeper into debt.
So this man met with those farmers in order to train them to use advanced agricultural techniques and keep good records of what they grew. By doing so, he helped more than 200 black farmers and their families get better prices for their work.
When he died, his family members and friends held his funeral in his home rather than the local church. After all, they figured, all those black mourners would make the members of the largely white church nervous.
But it was probably just as well. As his son later reported, “My daddy almost never attended church. Couldn’t stand to sit there and watch ushers pass the offering plates on Sunday, knowing how those scoundrels conducted their businesses during the week, knowing the way they treated people when they weren’t all dressed up and playing church.”
So whose prayers pleased God, for Jesus’ sake? Those whose blood-stained hands folded piously in church? Or the one whose hands lifted up the needy people around him?
James Limburg tells a story about hunting pheasants with his dad and some of his buddies when he was growing up. They’d just finished hunting and were sitting, eating lunch and swapping stories.
One of the men said, “I need a new combine. Where’s the best place to buy it?” When one friend answered, “Buy it from Jones. He’s a member of our church,” another snorted, “Don’t buy from Jones. Yes, he goes to church on Sundays, sometimes even twice. But don’t go to his implement shop on Monday morning! He’ll take you for all you’ve got!”
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Sermon Commentary for Sunday, August 7, 2016
Isaiah 1:1, 10-20 Commentary